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Monday / September 25

A Test in English is a Test of English

Our Overreliance on Achievement Testing

How many of you think that we are overtesting our youth?

That’s been the cry from family members to teachers to administrators over the last umpteen years. It comes with the growing disapproval of high-stakes achievement testing, the prominent educational paradigm throughout the United States. Over dependence on data generated from these tests along with copycat interim measures given throughout the year in the name of state and local accountability has resulted in a demoralized teaching force and placement of the large share of minority students in the untenable position of being penalized for their performance in school.

How many of you think that achievement tests are fair, relevant, and truly represent the performance of students?

There is mounting evidence that these tests of core content—namely, English language arts, mathematics, and science—are not linguistically or culturally valid for large numbers of students. Often times the context of the items rests outside the experiential realm of low-income students. For example, how many of these students have had opportunities to go skiing on a vacation, eat in a restaurant, or hang out in their two-story house with an attached garage? In addition, the language of the test can be dense, filled with words with multiple meanings and idiomatic expressions. The directions may be incomprehensible to emergent readers in English. Where is the equity in this picture?

How many of you think that the testing of content and concepts in English for our recently arrived English language learners (ELLs) is appropriate and yields useful information?

Large-scale achievement tests that are exclusively in English strip students who are proficient in more than one language of their potential for demonstrating their bilingualism and biliteracy. How do you make inferences of what students can do when only half of their language repertoire is measured? Students who are literate in their home language are going to use that language to make sense of their world while they are in the midst of developing an additional one. Yet, as an educational community, we generally discount what students already know when expressed through a different linguistic medium. Think about it. What if you were given a test in Chamorro, the language of Guam, an unincorporated territory of the United States. Wouldn’t you try to decipher it through your English lens?

Tests are quite complicated for ELLs. How many of you realize that for ELLs, a test in English is a test of English? Until these students reach a threshold of English language proficiency, their true achievement in English is going to be masked when measured in English. It will be difficult to distinguish whether these students do not have the underlying concepts or indeed have the concepts but not their associated labels in English. And for ELLs with disabilities, the road to academic success is generally dually challenged, first by their disability, which often is visually or literacy related and second by their ELL status.

Let’s look at an example of the interaction between students’ reading comprehension and a mathematics calculation. Read this typical word problem but with a focus on its language. What is the sociocultural context for language learning; that is, what are the assumptions that are made about the students who have to navigate this text? How does the language use impede or facilitate language learners’, especially ELLs, ability to access and achieve the content expectations set out in this scenario? How might the problem be represented to maximize students’ access to the content so that they could actually correctly solve it?


You finally get an allowance! You put $2 away in January, $4 away in February, $8 away in March, $16 away in April and followed this savings pattern through to December. How much money do you have in 12 months?  (Retrieved from http://math.about.com/od/wordproblem1/ss/6thws.htm)


At face value the problem appears relatively straight forward. Then you start thinking about the context. How many students these days understand the concept of an ‘allowance’? How realistic is it for students who may happen to get an allowance to amass so much money? Now, let’s center our attention on the language features. There is the implication that the students know they are to double the amount of money for each month of the year; however, this operation is contingent on their understanding of the preposition ‘through’. Adding to the complexity is the phrasal verb ‘put away’; do ELLs know what this phrase means when referring to money? Perhaps students have heard the command “Put away your books” at school or have responded to their friends when they said “You sure can ‘put away’ that candy!” or or have seen on TV the gangster who plans to ‘put his rival away’, or even witnessed the the criminal who is being ‘put away’ for life. This is not an exhausted list of the idioms associated with this verb phrase and yet none applies to this mathematical situation.

Which instructional supports might enhance students’ ability to solve this problem? To more readily set up the pattern as the basis for calculation, the problem might be presented in a two-column table with the months of the year and the corresponding amount of money accrued. However, the use of supports to facilitate comprehension often are not present here. To conclude, given the text dependence of achievement testing, where is assessment equity?

The clamor over the over testing of students must have reached federal ears as the 2015 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary School Act, the Every Student Succeeds Act, has ushered in a new vision of assessment built on data from multiple measure from a different locus of decision-making power- states, districts, and schools. As yet, guidance has not been issued and policies have not set, although the landscape is beginning to be reconfigured.

There are questions we can start asking ourselves on next steps to educational equity. Reflecting on how to make a difference in the education of language learners, how might we react to the current dependence on scores and numbers rather than on students? How might we offset information from state mandated achievement measures with local teacher generated measures? How can we encourage student voice in decision making? How might we put meaning back into the assessment experience of our teachers and students?

Moving Toward Greater Reliance on Teachers and Students as Decision Makers

To counter our obsession with standardized achievement testing (assessment of learning) that does not reflect the linguistic and cultural sensitivity of our communities, let’s put the trust back into teachers by making them change agents. By valuing teachers and giving them agency in designing tools, collecting and analyzing data, and using the data to inform instruction, we send a powerful message that they indeed can be assessment leaders. In carefully planning and intentionally implementing this process day in and day out, teachers come to understand the importance of data in improving their own craft and in nurturing students to advance their learning.

What can teachers do to rebuild confidence in their profession? With guidance and support from school and district leadership, they can take charge in directing assessment for learning in their classrooms. Teachers can also band together in grade level or department teams and professional learning communities to craft common assessments that are instructionally embedded. These culminating projects or products of units of learning can then be matched to common rubrics. Working together, teachers can interpret student work against the rubrics’ criteria and in calibrating the results, teachers can engage in professional learning as a community of learners.

Not only can teachers learn with and from other teachers, they also have the responsibility to facilitate and guide the teaching and learning of students. For far too long students have been the recipients of the learning process, not engaged initiators. In assessment as learning, students have a stake in their future and actively participate in setting their own academic goals, monitoring their progress, and gaining responsibility and independence for their learning. They are aware of and have influenced the language and content expectations of their classrooms and provide evidence of what they have accomplished through self reflection and peer assessment. Just as we wish our students to think as mathematicians and scientists, so too should we strive to have them think as learners.

Rethinking Equity in Assessment as, for, and of Learning

Let’s return to the original question—is assessment equity an oxymoron, especially when it comes to language learners? Annual testing remains a mainstay in education as it does serve a genuine purpose—to contribute to measuring the effectiveness of schooling. At the same time, however, we must pursue complementary measures of student and teacher designs that are built from challenging grade-level material to examine ongoing progress and achievement in standards-referenced classrooms.

How can we bring equity to assessment? First, we must come to accept a variety of perspectives—from students, teachers, and administrators—of what is valued in learning and how we value differential indicators of progress toward common sets of standards and goals. Given that premise, we must ensure that assessment is reasonable, relevant, represent opportunities for every student to succeed, and results in improving the quality of education. By balancing assessment of learning with that of assessment for and as learning, we will be able to fully portray our students’ accomplishments. Assessment that is reliable, valid, realistic, and fair for our students, especially for our ELLs and ELLs with disabilities, provides pathways that lead to crossing bridges to educational equity.

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Written by

Margo Gottlieb, Ph.D., is Lead Developer of WIDA, a consortium of 39 state education agencies and 200 international schools, housed at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. Earlier this year, Margo was honored by TESOL International Association “as an individual who has made a significant contribution to the TESOL profession within the past 50 years.”

Margo is author of Assessing English Language Learners: Bridges to Educational Equity (2nd Edition) and co-author of the Corwin series Academic Language in Diverse Classrooms with separate volumes for English Language Arts, Mathematics, Definitions and Contexts for Grades K-2, 3-5, and 6-8. She can be contacted at margo.gottlieb@wisc.edu.

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